In the Village of Viger

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

THE DESJARDINS


JUST AT the foot of the hill, where the bridge crossed the Blanche, stood one of the oldest houses in Viger.  It was built of massive timbers.  The roof curved and projected beyond the eaves, forming the top of a narrow veranda.  The whole house was painted a dazzling white except the window-frames, which were green.  There was a low stone fence between the road the garden, where a few simple flowers grew.  Beyond the fence was a row of Lombardy poplars, some of which had commenced to die out.  On the opposite side of the road was a marshy field, where by day the marsh marigolds shone, and by night, the fire-flies.  There were places in this field where you could thrust down a long pole and not touch bottom.  In the fall a few musk-rats built a house there, in remembrance of the time when it was a favourite wintering-ground.  In the spring the Blanche came up and flowed over it.  Beyond that again the hill curved round, with a scarped, yellowish slope. [Page 17]
    In this house lived Adèle Desjardin with her two brothers, Charles and Philippe.  Their father was dead, and when he died there was hardly a person in the whole parish who was sorry.  They could remember him as a tall, dark, forbidding-looking man, with long arms out of all proportion to his body.  He had inherited his fine farm from his father, and had added to and improved it.  He had always been prosperous, and was considered the wealthiest man in the parish.  He was inhospitable, and became more taciturn and morose after his wife died.  His pride was excessive and kept him from associating with his neighbours, although he was in no way above them.  Very little was known about his manner of life, and there was a mystery about his father's death.  For some time the old man had not been seen about the place, when one day he came from the city, dead, and in his coffin, which was thought strange.  This gave rise to all sorts of rumour and gossip; but the generally accredited story was, that there was insanity in the family and that he had died crazy.
    However cold Isidore Desjardin was to his neighbours, no one could have charged him with being unkind or harsh with his children, and as they grew up he gave them all the advantages which it was possible for them to have.  Adèle went for a year to the Convent of the Sacré Cœur in the city, and could play tunes on the piano when she came back; so that she had to have a piano of her own, which was the first one ever heard in Viger.  She was a slight, angular girl, with a dark, thin face and black hair [Page 18] and eyes.  She looked like her father, and took after him in many ways.  Charles, the elder son, was like his grandfather, tall and muscular, with a fine head and a handsome face.  He was studious and read a great deal, and was always talking to the curé about studying the law.  Philippe did not care about books; his father could never keep him at school.  He was short and thick-set and had merry eyes, set deep in his head.  "Someone must learn to look after things," he said, and when his father died he took sole charge of everything.
    If the Desjardins were unsociable with others, they were happy among themselves.  Almost every evening during the winter, when the work was done, they would light up the front room with candles, and Adèle would play on the piano and sing.  Charles would pace to and fro behind her, and Philippe would thrust his feet far under the stove, that projected from the next room through the partition, and fall fast asleep.  Her songs were mostly old French songs, and she could sing "Partant pour la Syrie" and "La Marseillaise."  This last was a favourite with Charles; he could not sing himself, but he accompanied the music by making wild movements with his arms, tramping heavily up and down before the piano, and shouting out so loudly as to wake Philippe, "Aux armes, citoyens!"  On fine summer evenings Philippe and Adèle would walk up and down the road, watching the marsh fire-flies, and pausing on the bridge to hear the fish jump in the pool, and the deep, vibrant croak of the distant frogs.  It was not always Philippe who walked [Page 19] there with Adèle; he sometimes sat on the veranda and watched her walk with someone else.  He would have waking dreams, as he smoked, that the two figures moving before him were himself and someone into whose eyes he was looking.
    At last it came to be reality for him, and then he could not sit quietly and watch the lovers; he would let his pipe go out, and stride impatiently up and down the veranda.  And on Sunday afternoons he would harness his horse, dress himself carefully, and drive off with short laughs, and twinklings of the eyes, and wavings of the hands.  They were evidently planning the future, and it seemed a distance of vague happiness.
    Charles kept on his wonted way; if they talked in the parlour, they could hear him stirring upstairs; if they strolled in the road, they could see his light in the window.  Philippe humoured his studious habits; he only worked in the mornings; in the afternoons he read, history principally.  His favourite study was the "Life of Napoleon Buonaparte," which seemed to absorb him completely.  He was growing more retired and preoccupied every day—lost in deep reveries, swallowed of ambitious dreams.
    It had been a somewhat longer day than usual in the harvest-field, and it was late when the last meal was ready.  Philippe, as he called Charles, from the foot of the stair, could hear him walking up and down, seemingly reading out loud, and when he received no response to his demand he went up the stairs.  Pushing open the door, he saw his brother striding up and down the room, with his hands [Page 20] clasped behind him and his head bent, muttering to himself.
    "Charles!"  He seemed to collect himself, and looked up.  "Come down to supper!"  They went downstairs together.  Adèle and Philippe kept up a conversation throughout the meal, but Charles hardly spoke.  Suddenly he pushed his plate away and stood upright, to his full height; a look of calm, severe dignity came over his face.
    "I!" said he; "I am the Great Napoleon!"
    "Charles!" cried Adèle, "what is the matter?"
    "The prosperity of the nation depends upon the execution of my plans.  Go!" said he, dismissing some imaginary person with an imperious gesture.
    They sat as if stunned, and between them stood this majestic figure with outstretched hand.  Then Charles turned away and commenced to pace the room.
    "It has come!" sobbed Adèle, as she sank on her knees beside the table.
    "There is only one thing to do," said Philippe, after some hours of silence.  "It is hard; but there is only one thing to do."  The room was perfectly dark; he stood in the window, where he had seen the light die out of the sky, and now in the marshy field he saw the fire-flies gleam.  He knew that Adèle was in the dark somewhere beside him, for he could hear her breathe.  "We must cut ourselves off; we must be the last of our race."  In those words, which in after years were often on his lips, he seemed to find some comfort, and he continued to repeat them to himself. [Page 21]
    Charles lay in a bed in a sort of stupor for three days.  On Sunday morning he rose.  The church bells were ringing.  He met Philippe in the hall.
    "Is this Sunday?" he asked.
    "Yes."
    "Come here!"  They went into the front room.
    "This is Sunday, you say.  The last thing I remember was you telling me to go in—that was Wednesday.  What has happened?"  Philippe dropped his head in his hands.
    "Tell me, Philippe, what has happened?"
    "I cannot."
    "I must know, Philippe; where have I been?"
    "On Wednesday night," said he, as if the words were choking him, "you said, 'I am the Great Napoleon!'  Then you said something about the nation, and you have not spoken since."
    Charles dropped on his knees beside the table against which Philippe was leaning.  He hid his face in his arms.  Philippe, reaching across, thrust his fingers into his brother's brown hair.  The warm grasp came as an answer to all Charles's unasked questions; he knew that, whatever might happen, his brother would guard him.
    For a month or two he lay wavering between two worlds; but when he saw the first snow, and lost sight of the brown earth, he at once commenced to order supplies, to write despatches, and to make preparations for the gigantic expedition which was to end in the overthrow of the Emperor of all the Russias.  And the snow continues to bring him this activity; during the summer he is engaged, [Page 22] with no very definite operations, in the field, but when winter comes he always prepares for the invasion of Russia.  With the exception of certain days of dejection and trouble, which Adèle calls the Waterloo days, in the summer he is triumphant with perpetual victory.  On a little bare hill, about a mile from the house, from which you can get an extensive view of the sloping country, he watches the movements of the enemy.  The blasts at the distant quarries sound in his ears like the roar of guns.  Beside him the old grey horse, that Philippe has set apart for his service, crops the grass or stands for hours patiently.  Down in the shadow valley the Blanche runs, glistening; the mowers sway and bend; on the horizon shafts of smoke rise, little clouds break away from the masses and drop their quiet shadows on the fields.  And through his glass Charles watches the moving shadows, the shafts of smoke, and the swaying mowers, watches the distant hills fringed with beech-groves.  He despatches his aides-de-camp with important orders, or rides down the slope to oversee the fording of the Blanche.  Half-frightened village boys hide in the long grass to hear him go muttering by.  In the autumn he comes sadly up out of the valley, leading his horse, the rein through his arm and his hands in his coat-sleeves.  The sleet dashes around him, and the wind rushes and screams around him, as he ascends the little knoll.  But whatever the weather, Philippe waits in the road for him and helps him dismount.  There is something heroic in his short figure.
    "Sire, my brother!" he says;—"Sire, let us go in!" [Page 23]
    "Is the King of Rome better?"
    "Yes."
    "And the Empress?"
    "She is well."
    Only once has a gleam of light pierced these mists.  It was in the year when, as Adèle said, he had had two Waterloos and had taken to his bed in consequence.  One evening Adèle brought him a bowl of gruel.  He stared like a child awakened from sleep when she carried in the lamp.  She approached the bed, and he started up.
    "Adèle!" he said, hoarsely, and pulling her face down, kissed her lips.  For a moment she had hope, but with the next week came winter; and he commenced his annual preparations for the invasion of Russia. [Page 24]